The Mental Marriott* looks like any other large Tudor cottage with brick siding, and oddly shaped rooms that give it an Alice in Wonderland feel. I had one of those rooms with cornflower blue low ceilings that required you to bend your head as you walk so that you don’t hit your head. I did eventually forget and hit my head, but the room didn’t lose the Wonderland feel for me in spite of this.
Thirteen of us lived at The Mental Marriott for an average of 3 weeks, depending upon the agreeability of your health insurance company. Most of us were there for post-traumatic stress disorder.
At The Mental Marriott we took turns making dinner. I volunteered for more than my required number of turns, and I couldn’t cook enough for them. I made West Texas Stacked Enchiladas (my own contribution to the menu), Chicken Francese, Spaghetti and Meatballs, and more. I was astonished that I had the ability to cook for 13 people. I would often start cooking 2 hours before dinner just for the leisure in drawing out the experience, and I would have fantasies that the house would hire me just to be the house cook. In my own mind, I was the house cook while I lived there. It’s the best job of my life thus far.
After dinner we would gather in the TV room and watch The Big Bang Theory on TBS. There was a Big Bang marathon up for viewing every night, and woe to you if you wanted to watch anything else.
My nonstop cooking and loquaciousness on endless topics had many wondering if I really belonged there. I struggled at times, but never felt as bad as I did on my own in my apartment back home. I was often introverted in the rest of my life outside of The Mental Marriott, but with this group I felt like I could be myself. I had no idea I had lost myself with trudging in the real world with PTSD at my heels.
As nice as the place was, there were times when we had to stand up for ourselves to the staff. One gal summed it up best when she said very simply to some staff members, “You know, we’re people too. You guys forget that sometimes.” Then there was my favorite therapist, Martha. She once made this statement in group therapy, “I don’t believe PTSD should be called a mental illness. I get so enraged by the way people are treated because of this condition. You have PTSD because of something that happened to you. Otherwise, you would not have it.” Needless to say, she had her own way of looking at things. We loved how she went against the group think of most of the staff in that place. She would say to me, “Beatriz, are you in a bad neighborhood again? Get out of that head of yours, girl. It’s a bad neighborhood.” She could tell I was ruminating by just looking at me.
We laughed at the irony of having the residential program on the campus of a famous Ivy League university. On the weekends we would go into town, and take in the college haunts with the rest of the students: the fun and groovy Indian restaurant, the chi chi bakeries, and nonstop bookstores. We had to return by midnight on Friday and Saturday. We would joke that our house was a sorority house, and we needed to sign in with the Sorority House Mother by midnight.
People often ask, “What do people with PTSD need?” Primarily and largely we need people. It is often that simple, not always though, but you might be surprised at how often that is answer in the moment. It’s not the cure, but it’s often what will carry the day.
There was a constant supply of frozen oranges in the freezer. We were taught that we could use frozen oranges to give us a “jolt” when we got stuck in a PTSD moment. In any random group therapy session you would see a number of frozen oranges in hand. I haven’t used a frozen orange since then. I associate them too much with that time, and it makes me sad to recall that time because I want it back. I want the thirteen place settings eagerly awaiting a person about to enjoy a meal.
* a special nod to Mary Karr for originally coining the phrase, Mental Marriott, in her memoir, Lit.